Will America stop dead at 4 p.m. today when we play Belgium in the World Cup? Part of it will, for sure.
If America has, at long last, caught World Cup Fever, the most obvious reason for the sudden U.S. popularity of televised soccer is the most obvious one: The sport is perfect for spectators, whether in stadiums or on the tube. On those big ultra-green fields in Brazil, you can always see the ball. And you can watch the matches at times of day where Americans can have that wonderful feeling of playing a little hooky.
So what if scoring is minimal at best? The action is constant and terrific and the cameras always catch the miscreants doing things as dastardly as biting the other guy’s shoulder or just simply sticking a foot out and tripping him. It doesn’t take a genius to know, after just one half of one game, what a dirty player looks like.
The rest of the world went full goose bozo for soccer-watching eons ago. Passions run so high that cops prepare for fan reactions to match results.
It’s been only in America that we stuck religiously to our traditional diet of TV sports – football, basketball, baseball (waning) and, doomed always to trail the leaders, hockey.
Yes, in Canadian border cities or NHL cities like Buffalo, hockey culture is so advanced that TV hockey ratings can exceed NHL ratings elsewhere considerably. But the simple fact is, you have to be taught how to watch hockey. You can’t always SEE the puck. You always know where it is if you’ve watched it enough, but hockey requires knowledgeable spectators. That, no doubt, is why the league all those years ago started winking at players throwing their gloves off and pummeling each other to see if any new opponents’ teeth could be racked up on their private scoreboards.
You couldn’t always see those teeth knocked loose either but fists and elbows flailing showed up nicely on the tube, even when they were flying around all that well-padded hockey regalia.
And now that so many Americans are learning to play soccer at such a young age, audiences are a natural to start caring – quite quickly – in a way that a majority is never likely to care about hockey.
In my case, sharing a sudden late life interest in TV soccer with my fellow Americans is a delayed re-connection with early life. The first star professional athlete I ever met was a professional soccer player.
I was only 9 or 10 years old and his name was Walt Bahr. He was the captain of the American World Cup team in 1950, and a member of the soccer team that, incredibly and legendarily, defeated England, helping to knock the Brits out of the tournament.
The people who owned the Adirondack Summer camp my parents sent my brother and me to hired Bahr to be – nominally – a camp counselor but most of all an authentic presence of athletic excellence for all of us ungainly little clods.
Bahr’s famous trick was to play volleyball against a team of smug young boys. Just Walt on one side adhering strictly to the rules of soccer, i.e. never using his hands. On the other side, you could put as many hotshot young doofuses as you could fit and Walt would still cream you.
He’d “catch” the ball on the side of a foot, knock it to his chest, bump it over his head and then use his head to smash the ball on your side of the volleyball court where no one could get to it.
That, before I’d hit puberty, was what I had been taught about soccer players – that they could be, pound for pound, as great as any athlete in any sport anywhere in the world. And prove it to you – in your face.
When a hopeless non-jock like me started to play soccer at the insistence of Nichols School (every healthy boy had to pick a sport every season, just so you’d run around part of the day and get physically tired), I got good enough dribbling a soccer ball down the field that I could juke an opponent and pass right by him.
That, and a brief anomalous period of sinking shots from a basketball foul line, are almost my entire lifetime achievement in any athletic endeavor – all accomplished before I started smoking at 13 behind everyone’s back. Add to that minuscule accomplishment the one time I hit a softball out into the outfield for a stand-up double (I was 11, I think) and one backhand tennis smash in my 30s whose power surprised me even more than the poor guy who couldn’t return it. There you have it: everything I’ve ever done right in a sports competition.
Against that, put the brief period when Nichols insisted that all of its young males (exclusively at the school at the time) should, however oafish we were, at least be familiar with hockey and try it. I couldn’t skate and I hated the elaborate uniforms. I spent an inordinate amount of time finding a stick I wouldn’t trip over. The first time one of my hockey-proficient fellow students took it upon himself to bodycheck me out of the way, I was permanently awakened to the realization that every minute I spent on the ice, I stood an excellent chance of being smacked around as much as the puck. Any desire to play after that vanished.
I liked playing soccer. It wasn’t hard to get the basics down. Same with basketball. Every now and then – maybe one time out of 80 tries – even the clumsiest shrimp on a basketball court could stop dribbling, get lucky, throw a ball over an opponent’s head and watch, awestruck, as it swished through the net.
My favorite moment of World Cup Fever, though, hasn’t been on the field but on the Internet – thanks to the latest perfectly timed super-asininity by Ann Coulter trying to prove that those of us newly enthusiastic about soccer spectatorship are part of America’s moral decay. No doubt, we’re ready to surrender our precious bodily fluids to the conspiracy of peacenik internationalists who have turned soccer into a symbolic rejection of the superiority of American sport that true blue American great grandfathers took for granted.
It was Nick Hornby on Facebook who first “shared” Coulter’s latest offense against functioning brain tissue and humanity. My first reaction upon reading it was, as the kids say, OMG, this is finally Coulter’s masterpiece, a column that begins at an unfathomable pitch of idiocy and just never lets up, only increasing in geometrically progressing drool as it goes on.
At a perfectly timed moment, to an awaiting world, she had found a way to be Ann Coulter to the whole world.
Let me make it clear. I am not one of whose think Coulter a deliberate secret satirist creating pieces of hilarious performance art to make the ghost of Jonathan Swift laugh his bloomers off in the great beyond. I think she’s dead serious – always – even if she’s well aware how much of a deranged lunatic she sounds in many quarters.
She knows she sounds like Gen. Jack D. Ripper’s sister in “Dr. Strangelove” and is fine with it, just fine.
What could be more decadent for a right-thinking non-immigrant American than a soccer match, something to further sap American ideals of individual achievement via the world’s favorite sport?
To Coulter, I would say, Walt Bahr is still with us at the age of 87.
How I wish the former Penn State soccer coach were still in his incredible prime. I’d love to see Coulter round up hotshot individualist jocks in her neighborhood for a little demonstration volleyball match against the decadent, team-loving soccer legend.
Playing, as always, without ever using his hands.